Archduke Franz was exploring the back streets of a foreign capital on foot, alone and at night because he was bored. He had spent two weeks shuttling between the Embassy and the palace to be trotted out when his Imperial Uncle’s negotiators wanted to point out that the ninth in line to the Terrencian Imperial Diadem was really quite a good deal.
Quite a good deal if you discounted his penchant for slipping off without security and his taste for a bit of rough, both of which he’d probably gotten from his secondary education at a military academy that had been not much more than an expensive reform school. Not that this princess they were offering up didn’t have her secrets, no-one had heard of her a year ago and then she’d just been inserted into the succession, the peerage and the order of precedence by a small notice in the Royal News column of the better newspapers. These Northerners were known to be a bit strange, of course. There was no record of her parent’s marriage but then, as the Archbishop back home had commented to his Imperial Uncle and his parents, the concepts of legitimacy and illegitimacy of children didn’t translate into their language. To top things off, all he’d seen of his proposed potential bride was an official portrait in formal gown and coronet. Interesting that no-one he knew had been able to lay hands on any other pictures of her.
Tonight’s wanderings had a point. He’d heard something he wanted to check out. If the street map he’d looked at was right then what he was looking for was about here, he looked at the narrow streetscape with interest, but first, “You’ve been following me for at least three blocks, why?” He’d spoken to a piece of shadow above an awning.
The shadow straightened, swung round to drop over the edge and hung by its fingertips for a moment, then dropped neatly to the ground. The dark clothing might have been unisex but the wearer was female.
“You might be marrying one of our princesses. When you go wandering alone at night we have a chance to found out more about you.” She was shorter than him, athletic in a practical way, with fair northern skin and a dark, knitted cap covering her hair.
“I want to find out more about the princess no-one’s ever heard of.” He smiled, a conversational move rather than a real pleasantry. “I understand the Lovvey Street orphanage might be worth my attention. It’s just around here, isn’t it?”
She looked at him with interest. “It was. It burned down about eight years ago. Arson. Everyone got out. I hear the fire alarm went off sooner that it should have if the fire had set it off.”
“Interesting.” He was looking at the office building that now occupied what was probably the old orphanage site.
“What I find interesting is that you’re a Terrencian Archduke who’s never seen in military uniform. Not once, not ever.” She had been careful, he noted, not to get within his arms’ reach. Her body language said she would either fight or run if she had to. The street lights showed a strong but elegant nose in proportion to her face, one his maternal grandmother would have described as ‘a nose of character.’
“I’m a Terrencian Archduke who’s about to return to the Terrencian Embassy. Might I escort you home on my way?” He crooked an elbow as an invitation to her to take his arm.
“Thank you, but no.” She kept her distance with a polite smile. “Your Imperial and Royal Highness could be hiding all sorts of aliases behind that fine and unfashionable beard – so short, tidy, easy to take off and quick to grow again. I don’t think I want you to know where I live, and you are known to carry to a knife,” his eyes narrowed as she spoke, “three recorded uses - two to free accident victims from entanglement but in the third, Archduke Sigismund’s attacker didn’t get to draw another breath.”
“That was rather the point.” He let himself shift his stance and look like someone who had the musculature he did, a thing he normally avoided. “He did try to kill my father in front of me.”
“I know,” she nodded in acknowledgement, “but I still don’t want you to know where I live.”